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The Cultural
A Peoples Histor y
Z e d o n g s b r u ta l ca m paign to
Mao , which
y C o m m un is t C h in a
n in th e e a rl y 19 60 s, resulted
de c a de o f c h a o s th a t has left
in a
d e lib le st ain o n th e nations
an in TTER.
tic s, sa y s F R A N K D IK

Revolution very hard to find the wa

y to keep China from bec

rril la are sea rch ing
of African gue nist.
an Mao received a group bureaucratic and revisio in the Peo-
N AUGUST 1963, Chairm a tal l, squ are -sh oul dered man corrupt, e 1st , 196 6, an incendiary editorial
the you ng vis ito rs, Thr ee yea rs late r, on Jun mons.
fighters. One of that the red star ay all Monsters and De
the rn Rh ode sia, had a question. He believed ple s Da ily exh ort ed readers to Sweep Aw ing peo ple to
from Sou iets, who used to ral Revolution, urg
g ove r the Kre ml in had slipped away. The Sov hat It wa s the ope ning shot of the Cultu wh o we re try ing
, now sold weapons to
their enemies. W es of the bourgeoisie
help the revolutionaries n Squ are den oun ce those representativ lism . As if thi s we re not
r Tiananme the road to capita
said. Will the red star ove lead the countr y down
I worry about is this, he and sel l arm s to our oppressors as to ligh t that four of the top lea
ders in the party had
? Wi ll you aba ndo n us eno ugh , it soo n cam e to mayor of
in China go out . I understand your plotting against Mao. The
Ma o bec am e pen siv e, puffing on his cigarette t and bee n pla ced under arrest, accused of e of the peo ple, to
well? turned revisionis tried, under the nos
It is that the USSR has g was among them. He had
question, he observed. you that Ch ina wo nt Bei jin
del of revisionism. Co unt er- rev olu tio nar ies
tion. Can I guarantee to turn the capital into a cita
has betrayed the revolu you tha t gua ran tee . We
Right now I cant give
betray the revolution?



had sneaked into the party, the government and the army. Now was the
beginning of a new revolution in China, as the people were encouraged
to stand up and flush out all those trying to transform the dictatorship
of the proletariat into a dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.
Who, precisely, these counter-revolutionaries were and how they
had managed to worm their way into the party was unclear, but the
leading representative of modern revisionism was the Soviet leader and
party secretary, Nikita Khrushchev. In a secret speech in 1956, which
shook the socialist camp to the core, Khrushchev had demolished the
reputation of his erstwhile master Joseph Stalin, detailing the horrors
of his rule and attacking the cult of personality. Two years later, Khrush-
chev proposed peaceful coexistence with the West, a concept that
true believers around the world, including the young guerrilla fighter
from Southern Rhodesia, viewed as a betrayal of the principles of rev-
olutionary communism.

AO, WHO HAD MODELLED HIMSELF on Stalin, felt per-
sonally threatened by de-Stalinisation. He must have won-
dered how one man, Nikita Khrushchev, could have single-
handedly engineered such a complete reversal of policy in
the mighty Soviet Union, the first socialist country in the world. He
arrived at the answer that too little had been done about culture. The
capitalists were gone, their property confiscated, but capitalist culture
still held sway, making it possible for a few people at the top to erode
and finally subvert the entire system.
In short, a new revolution was required to stamp out once and for all
the remnants of old culture, from private thoughts to private markets.
Just as the transition from capitalism to socialism required a revolution,
the transition from socialism to communism demanded a revolution,
too: Mao called it the Cultural Revolution.
It was a bold project, one that aimed to eradicate all traces of the
past. But behind all the theoretical justifications lay an ageing dictators

Previous page:
Greet the 1970s
with the new
victories of
revolution and
poster, 1970;
Red Guards rally,
Beijing, 1966.
Top right: Mao
Zedong, c.1958.
Right: Cultural
poster, late 1960s.
Far right: Maos
Little Red Book on
sale in Shanghai.


Mao combined grandiose ideas of historical
destiny with an extraordinary capacity for malice.
Insensitive to human loss, he nonchalantly
handed down killing quotas

determination to shore up his own standing in world history. Mao historical destiny with an extraordinary capacity for malice. Insen-
was sure of his own greatness, of which he spoke constantly, and saw sitive to human loss, he nonchalantly handed down killing quotas
himself as the leading light of communism. It was not all hubris. Mao in the many campaigns that were designed to cow the population.
had led a quarter of humanity to liberation and had then succeeded in As he became older, he increasingly turned on his colleagues and
fighting the imperialist camp to a standstill during the Korean War. subordinates, some of them long-standing comrades-in-arms, sub-

jecting them to public humiliation, imprisonment and torture. The
AOS first attempt to steal the Soviet Unions thunder Cultural Revolution, then, was also about an old man settling per-
was the Great Leap Forward in 1958, when people in the sonal scores at the end of his life. These two aspects of the Cultural
countryside were herded into giant collectives called Revolution the vision of a socialist world free of revisionism, the
peoples communes. By turning every man and woman sordid, vengeful plotting against real and imaginary enemies were
in the countryside into a foot soldier in one giant army, to be de- not mutually exclusive. Mao saw no distinction between himself and
ployed day and night to transform the economy, he thought that he the revolution. Mao was the revolution.
could catapult his country past its competitors. Mao was convinced There were many challenges to his position. In 1956, some of
that he had found the golden bridge to communism, making him Maos closest allies, including Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping, had
the messiah leading humanity to a world of plenty for all. But the used Khrushchevs secret speech to delete all references to Mao
Great Leap Forward was a disastrous experiment, as tens of millions Zedong Thought from the party constitution and criticise the cult
of people were worked, beaten and starved to death. of personality. Mao was seething, though he had little choice but
The Cultural Revolution was Maos second attempt to become the to acquiesce. The biggest setback came in the wake of the Great
historical pivot around which the socialist universe revolved. Lenin Leap Forward, a catastrophe on an unprecedented scale directly
had carried out the Great October Socialist Revolution, setting a prec- caused by his own obstinate policies. At a conference held in 1962,
edent for the proletariat of the whole world. But modern revisionists as some 7,000 leading cadres from all over the country gathered to
talk about the failure of the Great Leap Forward, Maos star was at
its lowest. Rumours were circulating, accusing him of being deluded,
innumerate and dangerous. Some of his colleagues may have wanted
him to step down, holding him responsible for the mass starvation of
ordinary people. His entire legacy was in jeopardy. Mao feared that
he would meet the same fate as Stalin, who was denounced after
his death. Who would become Chinas Khrushchev? The Cultural
Revolution, then, was also a long and sustained effort by Mao to
prevent any party leader from turning against him.

The Early Years (1962-66)

FOUR YEARS BEFORE the formal start of the Cultural Revolution,
Mao went on the attack. In the summer of 1962 he launched a Social-
ist Education Campaign to raise revolutionary vigilance and clamp
down on economic activities that took place outside the planned
economy. During the last year or so of the Great Leap Forward,
such as Khrushchev had usurped the leadership of the party, leading control over the economy had relaxed and parts of the countryside
the Soviet Union back onto the road to capitalist restoration. The had started to de-collectivise in an effort to ward off starvation, as
Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was the second stage in the some of the land was handed back to individual farmers. These prac-
history of the international communist movement, safeguarding the tices now came under attack, as Never Forget Class Struggle became
dictatorship of the proletariat against revisionism. The foundation the slogan of the day. Liu Shaoqi, who had supported a measure
piles of the communist future were being driven in China, as Mao of economy leniency to help the country get out of the famine in
guided the oppressed and downtrodden people of the world towards 1961, threw his weight behind the Socialist Education Campaign.
freedom. Mao was the one who inherited, defended and developed As second-in-command, he soon veered more to the left than Mao.
Marxism-Leninism into a new stage, that of Marxism-Leninism-Mao According to Liu, a third of the power in this country was no longer
Zedong Thought. in the partys hands: the talk was all about taking power back from
Like many dictators, Mao combined grandiose ideas about his own class enemies. Liu presided over one of the most vicious purges



Mao was particularly

concerned with educating
the young, seen as the
heirs to the revolution

Mao at a Communist rally in

Tiananmen Square, Beijing, c.1965.
Below: Red Guards and high school and
university students parade through
Beijing at the beginning of the Cultural
Revolution, June 1966.

in party history, punishing over five million party members. Whole

provinces were accused of taking the capitalist road.
But repression alone would not suffice to counteract the perva-
sive effects of the counter-revolutionary ideology that had taken
hold in the wake of the Great Leap Forward. Mao was particularly
concerned with educating the young, seen as the heirs to the revolu-
tion. Students at all levels were educated in class hatred and made to
study the works of Mao Zedong. Under Lin Biao, the army fostered a
more martial atmosphere, in tune with the Socialist Education Cam-
paign. In primary schools, children were taught how to use airguns
by shooting at portraits of nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek and
US imperialists. Military summer camps for students and workers
were organised in the countryside. Before the Cultural Revolution
began, young people were ready to take on imaginary class enemies.

The Red Years (1966-68)

ON JUNE 1ST, 1966 the Peoples Daily published an editorial entitled were punished for their activities by work teams sent by Deng Xiao-
Sweep Away all Monsters and Demons. That same day, celebrated ping and Liu Shaoqi, put in charge of the Cultural Revolution in the
as Childrens Day, a poster that had appeared a week earlier on the Chairmans absence from Beijing. In mid-July, Mao returned to the
campus of Peking University was also widely publicised. It alleged capital. Instead of supporting his two colleagues, he accused them
that the university leaders were Khrushchev-type revisionists. of suppressing the students and running a dictatorship. To Rebel is
Students had undergone years of indoctrination during the Social- Justified became his battle cry and rebel students did. Red Guards
ist Education Campaign and were itching to lash out. They started appeared in August, donning improvised military uniforms, carrying
scrutinising the backgrounds of their teachers, accusing some of the Little Red Book. They vowed to defend the Chairman and carry
being bourgeois elements or even counter-revolutionaries. But out the Cultural Revolution. They declared war on the old world and
some went too far, taking to task leading party members. They went on the rampage, burning books, overturning tombstones in


cemeteries, tearing down temples, vandalising churches and attacking
all signs of the past, including street names and shop signs. This was
Red August.
The Red Guards also carried out house raids. In Shanghai alone, a
quarter of a million homes were visited and all remnants of the past
seized, whether ordinary books, antique bronzes or rare scrolls. Maos
Little Generals also attacked those suspected of being enemies of the
revolution, forcing some of them to swallow nails and excrement as
jeering crowds looked on. One teacher killed himself after being set
upon by students who forced him to drink ink. Another was doused
in petrol and set alight. Others were electrocuted or even buried alive.
By late September, more than 1,700 had been killed in Beijing alone.

AO WISHED TO PURGE the higher echelons of power and
had turned to young, radical students instead, some of
them no older than 14, giving them license to denounce all
authority and Bombard the headquarters. But party offi-
cials had honed their survival skills during decades of political infighting
and few were about to be outflanked by a group of screaming, self-right-
eous Red Guards. Many deflected the violence away from themselves by
encouraging the youngsters to persecute ordinary people suspected of
being class enemies. Some cadres even managed to organise their own
Red Guards, all in the name of Mao Zedong Thought and the Cultural
Revolution. In the parlance of the time, they raised the red flag in order
to fight the red flag. The Red Guards started fighting each other, divided
over who the true capitalist roaders and revisionists inside the party
were. In some places, Red Guards besieged the local party committee.
In others, party activists and factory workers rallied in support of their
leaders, leading to a stalemate.
In response, the Chairman urged the population at large to join
the revolution. Just as Mao had incited students to rebel against their
teachers months earlier, he unleashed ordinary people against their
party leaders in the autumn of 1966. The result was a social explosion

Above, from left: Mao, Liu Shaoqi, Peng Dehual and Zhou Enlai
idealised in a propaganda poster, 1966.
Left: Mao with Lin Piao, c.1965.

different factions jostled for power and started fighting each other.
By January 1967 the chaos was such that the army intervened,
asked to push through the revolution and bring the situation under
control by supporting the true proletarian left. As different military
leaders supported different factions, all of them equally certain that
they represented the true voice of Mao Zedong, the country slid into
civil war. Soon people were fighting each other with machine guns
and anti-aircraft artillery in the streets.
Still, the Chairman prevailed. He was cold and calculating, but
on an unprecedented scale, as every pent-up frustration caused by also erratic, whimsical and fitful, thriving on willed chaos. He impro-
years of communist rule was released. There was no lack of people vised, bending and breaking millions along the way. He may not have
who harboured grievances against party officials. There were all those been in control, but was always in charge, relishing a game in which
who had been reduced to starvation during the Great Leap Forward in he could constantly rewrite the rules. Periodically he stepped in to
the countryside. In the cities there were workers living in abject con- rescue a loyal follower or to throw a close colleague to the wolves.
ditions, some barely able to feed their families. And, before too long, A mere utterance of his decided the fates of countless people, as
the victims of earlier campaigns also started clamouring for justice, he declared one or another faction to be counter-revolutionary.
including those punished during the Socialist Education Campaign. His verdict could change overnight, feeding a seemingly endless
But the revolutionary masses, instead of neatly sweeping away all cycle of violence in which people scrambled to prove their loyalty
followers of the bourgeois reactionary line, also became divided, as to the Chairman.


Placards of Mao
paraded through
Beijing, c.1970.

Over the next three years, revolutionary party

committees turned China into a garrison state,
with soldiers overseeing schools and factories

The Black Years (1968-1971) as a burden on the state, were removed to the countryside and left
to their own devices.
THE FIRST PHASE of the Cultural Revolution came to an end in the Then followed a series of brutal purges, used by the revolutionary
summer of 1968 as new, so-called revolutionary party committees party committees to eradicate all those who had spoken out at the
took over the party and the state. They were heavily dominated by height of the Cultural Revolution. The talk was no longer of capital-
military officers, concentrating real power in the hands of the army. ist roaders, but of traitors, renegades and spies, as special com-
They represented a simplified chain of command that Mao relished, mittees were set up to examine alleged enemy links among ordinary
one in which his orders could be carried out instantly and without people and party members alike. Anyone with a foreign link in their
question. Over the next three years they turned the country into a past became suspect. In Shanghai alone, close to 170,000 people
garrison state, with soldiers overseeing schools, factories and gov- were harassed in one way of another. More than 5,400 committed
ernment units. At first, millions of undesirable elements, including suicide, were beaten to death or executed. In Guangdong province
students and others who had taken the Chairman at his word, were as a whole, one estimate puts the body count at 40,000. In Inner
banished to the countryside to be re-educated by the peasants. Many Mongolia, close to 800,000 people were incarcerated, interrogat-
had no fixed abode. In some provinces, this was the case for roughly ed and denounced in mass meetings. Torture chambers appeared
half of all exiled students, as they were forced to live in caves, aban- across the province. Tongues were ripped out, teeth extracted with
doned temples, pigsties or sheds. Most went hungry. Sexual abuse pliers, eyes gouged from their sockets, flesh branded with hot irons.
was rife: thousands were raped by local bullies in the province of Although less than 10 per cent of the population in Inner Mongolia
Hubei alone, including girls as young as 14. Besides students, entire were Mongols, they constituted more than 75 per cent of the victims.
families, in particular the most destitute and vulnerable ones, seen After a nationwide witch-hunt came a sweeping campaign against



Below: Red Guards and students brandish Maos corruption, further cowing the population into submission, as almost
Little Red Book as they parade through Beijing, 1966; every act and every utterance inadvertently poking a hole in a poster
a kindergarten child thrusts a spear into an effigy of Mao, questioning the planned economy became potentially crim-
labelled US bad; children aim toy pistols at a
caricature of US President Lyndon Johnson.
inal. In some provinces up to one in 50 people were implicated in one
purge or another.
These years were also the high point of a huge industrial project
called the Third Front. It aimed at nothing less than the building of a
complete industrial infrastructure in the countrys interior. Paranoid
about a possible enemy attack from either the Soviet Union or the
United States, the one-party state carried out a colossal programme to
move about 1,800 factories to the most remote and inhospitable areas
of the hinterland, far away from the populated plains in the north of the
country and the provinces along the coastline. Since about two thirds
of the states industrial investment went to the project between 1964
and 1971, it constituted the main economic policy of the Cultural Rev-
olution. It is probably the biggest example of wasteful capital allocation
made by a one-party state in the 20th century. In terms of economic
development, it was a disaster second only to the Great Leap Forward.

ELF-RELIANCE also become the guiding principle in the country-
side, as everybody had to emulate Dazhai, a peoples commune
located on a sterile plateau of loess in north China. Dazhai, in
effect, was a return to the spirit of the Great Leap Forward, as
everything in the village was collectivised once again. The Dazhai model
was imposed by the army, as soldiers whipped up the workforce, using
the villagers as foot soldiers to increase output. In a province like Zhe-
jiang, a quarter of all production teams reverted to the radical collectiv-
isation of the Great Leap Forward: pigs were slaughtered, private plots
confiscated, every tree deemed collective property. Under the threat
of war with either the Soviet Union or the United States, the emphasis
was on grain and terraced fields appeared everywhere in imitation of
Dazhai. Neither climate nor topography mattered, as lakes were filled,
forests cleared and deserts reclaimed in desperate attempts, from the
Mongolian steppes to the swamps of Manchuria, to emulate Dazhai.
Dogmatic uniformity was imposed across the country.
Mao was wary of the military, in particular Lin Biao, who had taken
over the ministry of defence in the summer of 1959 and pioneered the
study of Mao Zedong Thought in the army. Mao had used Lin Biao to
launch and sustain the Cultural Revolution, but the marshal in turn
exploited the turmoil to expand his own power base, placing followers
in key positions throughout the army. He died in a mysterious plane
crash in September 1971, bringing to an end the grip of the military on
civilian life. The army was in turn purged, falling victim to the Cultural

The Grey Years (1971-1976)

By now, the revolutionary frenzy had exhausted almost everyone. Even
at the height of the Cultural Revolution, many ordinary people, wary
of the one-party state, had offered no more than outward compliance,
keeping their innermost thoughts and personal feelings to themselves.
Now many realised that the party had been badly damaged by the Cul-
tural Revolution. In the countryside, in particular, if the Great Leap
Forward had destroyed the credibility of the party, the Cultural Rev-
olution undermined its organisation. In a silent revolution, millions
upon millions of villagers surreptitiously reconnected with traditional
practices as they opened black markets, shared out collective assets,
divided the land and opened underground factories.
Take, for instance, Yanan. Set amid dusty, sandstone-coloured
hills in northern Shaanxi, it was one of the most hallowed places in
communist propaganda, where Mao and his guerilla fighters had



Clockwise from right:

agricultural workers in
Dazhai, 1971; the after-
math of the Tiananmen
Square massacre, 1989;
Chinese premier Deng
Xiaoping (left) with Kim
Il Sung, leader of North
Korea, 1978.

established their temporary capital during the Second World War. ANY DID SO out of sheer necessity, in order to stave off
When a propaganda team arrived in Yanan in December 1974, it the starvation caused by the planned economy. But in
found a thriving and sophisticated black market. One village had less deprived regions, too, the market thrived. In the
abandoned any attempt to wrench food from the arid and parched county of Puning in Guangdong, around 30 markets
soil, specialising in selling pork instead. In order to fulfil their quota covered the needs of more than a million people. They attracted
of grain deliveries to the state, they used the profit from their meat local farmers, artisans and traders, each with goods in their hands,
business to buy back corn from the black market. Local cadres sup- on their back or in a cart. Pedlars offered colourful illustrations from
ervised the entire operation. Elsewhere in the province, entire traditional operas, books from the imperial and republican eras and
peoples communes had divided up collective assets and handed collections of traditional poetry that had escaped the clutches of
responsibility for production back to individual families. In many the Red Guards. There were itinerant doctors offering their services.
cases, local cadres took the lead, distributing the land to farmers. Storytellers used wooden clappers to mark the most dramatic
Sometimes a deal was struck between representatives of the state moments of their stories. Blind people sang traditional folk songs for
and those who tilled the land, as the fiction of collective ownership a few alms. Touts stood outside restaurants selling ration coupons.
was preserved by turning over a percentage of the crop to party offi- In some markets, organised gangs travelled up and down the coast,
cials. Across the country, from north to south, people raised ducks, going all the way to Shanghai to trade in prohibited goods. A few
kept bees, grew fish, baked bricks and cut timber, always in the name went as far as Jiangxi to procure tractors, acting on demand from
of the collective. In parts of Zhejiang, by late 1971 some two thirds local villages keen to mechanise.
of all villagers were independent or go-it-aloners as they were Some wealthier villages not only planted profitable crops for the
known at the time. Much of this was done with the tacit consent of market, but also began establishing local factories. There were also
the local authorities, who rented the land to individual households underground factories, dispensing altogether with the pretence of
in exchange for a portion of the crop. collective ownership. In Chuansha, just outside Shanghai, where

Even before Mao

died in September
1976, large parts
of the countryside
had already
abandoned the
planned economy


villagers were mandated by the state to grow cotton, the industrial campaigns of thought reform during the Mao era produced widespread
portion of total production reached 74 per cent by 1975, a rate of scepticism even among party members themselves. The very ideology
growth far superior to the years of economic reform after 1978. of the party was gone and its legitimacy lay in tatters. But political
Even before Mao died in September 1976, large parts of the coun- freedoms were not to follow. The leaders now lived in fear of their
tryside had already abandoned the planned economy. It was to be one own people, terrified of allowing them to speak again, determined
of the most enduring legacies of a decade of chaos and entrenched to suppress their political aspirations. In June 1989, Deng personally
fear. No communist party would have tolerated organised confronta- ordered a military crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators in
tion, but cadres in the countryside were defenceless against a myriad Beijing, as tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square. The massacre that
of daily acts of quiet defiance and endless subterfuge, as people tried followed was a display of brutal force and steely resolve, designed
to sap the economic dominance of the state and replace it with their to send a signal that still pulsates to this very day: do not query the
own initiative and ingenuity. monopoly of the communist party of China.
Deng Xiaoping, assuming the reins of power a few years after the
death of Mao, briefly tried to resurrect the planned economy. In April Frank Diktter is chair professor of humanities at the University of Hong Kong and the
1979 he even demanded that villagers who had left the collectives author of The Cultural Revolution: A Peoples History 1962-1976 (Bloomsbury, 2016).
rejoin the peoples communes. But soon he realised that he had
little choice but to go with the flow. By 1980, tens of thousands of FURTHER READING
local decisions had placed 40 per cent of Anhui production teams,
Cheng Nien, Life and Death in Shanghai (Flamingo, 1995).
50 per cent of Guizhou teams and 60 per cent of Gansu teams under
household contracts. The peoples communes, backbone of the col- Zhuisui Li, Private Life of Chairman Mao: The Memoirs of Maos
lectivised economy, were dissolved in 1982. Personal Physician (Arrow, 1996).
Not only did the vast majority of people in the countryside push Frank Diktter, Maos Great Famine: The History of Chinas Most
for greater economic opportunities, but they also escaped from Devastating Catastrophe (Bloomsbury, 2010).
the ideological shackles imposed by decades of Maoism. Endless